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Lessons From Spain: "Los Indignados," Occupy Wall Street, and the Failure of the Status Quo

Posted: 10/24/11 11:20 PM ET

Saying I've just returned from a country in which I witnessed huge protests calling for economic justice doesn't tell you much about where I was -- it only narrows it to about 15 or 20 countries. In fact, I was in Spain during the loosely coordinated worldwide demonstration that took place on October 15th. The date was chosen because it was the five-month anniversary of the Spanish protests, which began in the middle of May. Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have said that the Spanish protests served as one of their inspirations, and many of the Spanish protesters I spoke to said they had been re-energized by OWS. (What's the Spanish word for "synergy?")

There were protests in over 80 countries on the 15th, with half a million taking to the streets in Madrid to voice their frustration with a political system that has failed the people of Spain -- in the same way our own "Los Indignados" (Spanish for "The Outraged") are voicing their anger and frustration at a system that has failed the "99 percent" here in America.

The Spanish protests have become the granddaddy of the protest movements sweeping most Western democracies, and might just offer a look at the future of what's to come on this side of the Atlantic. There are three things in particular that strike me as I look back on my week in Spain and try to apply it to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon unfolding here.

The first is the political paradox inherent in the European protests. In Spain, the dissatisfaction is widely expected to lead to an overwhelming victory for the conservative candidate for prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party, over Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba of the Socialist Party, in elections to be held on November 20th. (The current prime minister, Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, announced in April that he wouldn't be running for a third term.) By some estimates, the Popular Party may win over 190 of the 350 seats in the Spanish Parliament, while the Socialists might drop below 120.

Meanwhile in France, in elections to be held in April, it is widely expected that President Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) will lose to the Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande. This shows that the outpouring of anger isn't directed against any one particular party or political philosophy, but against the status quo. It doesn't matter what party you represent; if you're in power, you're part of the broken political system and the people of Spain, of France, and, quite possibly of the United States, want you out.

In Spain, the evidence of the failure of the status quo is particularly stark, with an unemployment rate of nearly 21 percent (over twice what it is here). Among young people, the number has soared to 45 percent, the highest in Europe.

While I was in Spain, I spent an hour with each of the two leading candidates for prime minister. There were, of course, many differences in their positions, but they were both hearing the Indignados loud and clear.

"Three years into the recession," Rubalcaba told me, "the Spanish only have one word on their minds: 'change.'" He spoke especially about the plight of the young, the so-called "Lost Generation" of those who have recently graduated from college and have little chance of finding work any time soon. "They did everything they needed to do to have a future, and now they can't find a job," he said.

Even though they're more than likely to vote his party out of power, Rubalcaba is not, as many of his American counterparts are, willfully blind to what's fueling the protesters. "The people out there demonstrating aren't anti-system," he said. "They expect solutions from politics, from the system, and they haven't gotten them."

For his part, Mariano Rajoy has eagerly presented himself as the conduit for the widespread desire for change. Like his opponent, he too stressed that his "basic priority" is employment and jobs. "Many young people don't see a future," he told me, noting that in Spain, as in the U.S., for the first time the younger generation doesn't expect to do as well as their parents.

The second thing that struck me was how family-oriented the protests were. However they started, they are now truly a middle-class movement. But when I looked at how the media covered the October 15th protests, instead of the thousands of families and children and retirees who marched in the streets, what dominated the airwaves were burning cars from the protest in Rome -- which was hijacked by a coterie of masked anarchists.

Just as solutions to the problems facing Europe and America are not going to be found in traditional political ways, the truth of what's happening is not going to be found in traditional media coverage either. The conventional wisdom of the establishment media has been constantly upended -- not just about the economic crisis and how it unfolded, but about the reaction to it, as well.

Greg Sargent, for example, convincingly challenged the conventional wisdom that there is some unbridgeable "cultural fault line" between blue-collar white Americans and the people who take to the streets to protest for economic justice. He pointed to a recent National Journal poll in which the percentage of non-college-educated whites who agree with the Occupy Wall Street protesters was 56. Just over 30 percent disagreed. Sargent also cited a Time poll in which the percentage of those in agreement with OWS was over 50 percent.

So the real message of the protesters is getting out, even if many in the media want to portray it as a hippie-dippy relic of the 1960s. In a piece for HuffPost, CNBC contributor and former White House aide Keith Boykin concludes that, after visiting Zuccotti Park, "almost everything the media told me about the protest is wrong."

Boykin takes apart myths like "The Movement Is Violent," "It's Just A Bunch Of Pampered Kids," and "There Are No Black People Involved." Boykin says he was "taken aback by how many black and Latino participants" he saw. "I hadn't seen them on the television coverage," he writes. He also counters the idea that it's just a bunch of hippies. "To watch some of the media coverage of the movement, you would think the protest was filled with long-haired hippies left over from the 1960s," he writes, noting he saw "high school-aged kids with their parents, college students in their school sweatshirts, men in business suits, mothers with baby carriages, people with jobs, people who were unemployed," and "white-haired retirees."

The third thing that struck me about the protests -- both in Spain and here -- is that they are about more than political and economic goals. They are bigger than that. They are about changing civil society -- about creating a new relationship not just between the people and their government, but among the people themselves. There's the growing sense that the problems we're facing can't be solved just by fixing our political institutions. We need to transform our relationships to our communities.

There is, of course, a rich tradition for strengthening civil society here in America -- but not so in Spain. As Rubalcaba told me, an activist civil society isn't something that's been historically nurtured. "Spanish civil society is passive," he said.

Working hard to help Spain develop its civil society muscle is U.S. Ambassador Alan Solomont, the former chairman of the board for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency responsible for Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America. A one-time community organizer, Solomont has spent his life championing the need to develop a culture of citizenship, service, and social responsibility in America -- and is trying to assist Spain in doing the same. As he told me: "Civic participation is not a luxury but a necessity for a healthy democracy."

The need to nurture civil society was acknowledged by both candidates. And so was the need for entrepreneurship and innovation. Indeed, it was Rubalcaba, the Socialist candidate, who lamented the fact that "the coming century should be our century -- Spain has a lot of creativity, innovation and intelligence, but risk is not part of our DNA." He sees nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit -- especially among the young -- as key to Spain's turnaround: "It's about enabling people to have a chance to get as far as they can."

If we're going get out of this mess -- the U.S., Spain, Greece and all the rest -- there are two essential ingredients we'll need: empathy nurtured by a strong civil society, and innovation nurtured by an entrepreneurial spirit. Producing a political system that rewards these essential traits, instead of being at the mercy of lobbyists and big money donors, may require a movement of citizens taking to the streets.

As George Bernard Shaw put it: "All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

 
 
 

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